District attorney candidate withdraws from event that promises to teach Sonoma County farmers how to ‘manage activists’

A flyer about the meeting sparked outrage on social media.|

A county prosecutor who plans to run for Sonoma County District Attorney in 2022 withdrew as a speaker in a subsequently canceled Sonoma County Farm Bureau seminar after concerns were raised about the event, which promised to teach local farmers how to “manage activists.”

Sonoma County Deputy District Attorney Carla Rodriguez, who declared her intentions to run after District Attorney Jill Ravitch opted not to seek reelection, had been one of four panelists scheduled to speak at the Farm Bureau’s event.

But after a flyer touting the meeting sparked outrage on social media and concerns about the undermining of free speech, as well as questions about her involvement, Rodriguez backed out.

“Hear from media specialists, law enforcement, and legal experts to learn how to prepare for and manage activists,” read the flyer advertising the county farm bureau’s Nov. 10 workshop, “Beyond the Fence Line.”

Ana Lugo, a Sonoma County community leader and diversity and equity consultant, posted the flyer on her Facebook page on Oct. 12, with the comment, “Dear Sonoma County Farm Bureau ...The single most effective way to ‘prepare for and manage activists’ is to actually train your members and hold them accountable to treating living beings humanely, caring for our earth by fighting for climate justice-based policy, paying dignified living wages and spending your money on advocating for comprehensive immigration reform.”

Indivisible Petaluma, a local progressive group of community activists and organizers, also shared the flyer on its Facebook, Instagram and Twitter feeds.

“Come on ... Sonoma County Farm Bureau is hosting an event- how to ‘manage activists’? We have 2022 local elections. One of the panelists, Carla is running for SoCo DA. What message are they sending here?” the group stated on its Facebook posting.

Commenters on the posts were also concerned, in particular, about the phrase “manage activists" and its implications for free speech.

Rodriguez said she had not seen the flyer before people began angrily posting about it online.

“It didn’t seem consistent with why I thought I was going,” which was to discuss “how a person can be safe during such a protest and not try to take matters into your own hands,” she said.

To her, the flyer “sounded anti-free speech, anti-assembly.”

Rodriguez, who acknowledged that the public response and the upcoming election influenced her decision, announced her withdrawal from the event on her campaign Facebook page, citing language on promotional materials that she “strongly disagreed with.”

Days after the initial flyer was made public, the county Farm Bureau published a revised flyer online, along with an apology.

“Regrettably, the flyer did not fully explain the intent of the workshop and included verbiage that was insensitive and confusing. We apologize to anyone who found this language offensive and have reworked the flyer below to more thoroughly explain the workshop topic,” the agency stated.

The Nov. 10 workshop would have taught farmers “how to reduce confrontations and damages from animal activists,” according to the new flyer. Discussions would have included trespassing and theft laws, drones and signage. The District Attorney’s Office’s presentation would have discussed the prosecution of various misdemeanors.

“We made an error,” said Sonoma County Farm Bureau Executive Director Tawny Tesconi, explaining the bureau’s decision to publicly apologize. “We’re not trying to prevent activism. ... There’s nothing wrong with protesting; it’s a constitutional right, it’s just a question of when they start trespassing or stealing or taking animals off our farms.”

Tesconi added that the flyer "wasn’t meant as a public document” and was sent only to Farm Bureau members. She did not know how local activists obtained it.

Reached on Tuesday, Farm Bureau leadership said the event had subsequently been canceled “due to low registration.”

The controversy comes just weeks before a handful of animal rights activists, who are charged with multiple offenses in connection with past farm protests, including grand theft, trespassing and conspiracy to commit a crime, are set to appear in Sonoma County Superior Court for a preliminary hearing.

Almira Tanner is among four defendants whose court appearances are scheduled for Nov. 16 and 17 on charges related to three demonstrations at local farms and slaughterhouses in 2018 and 2019.

Before the event was canceled, Tanner said that Rodriguez’s withdrawal and the bureau’s apology are welcome changes, but they don’t fix what many feel are the real problems with the event.

“I’m happy that Carla Rodriguez made that statement, and I’m glad that it came about because of public pressure,” Tanner said. “But I’m skeptical that anything in their presentation will be different.”

“It’s still indicative of blind support for industrial agriculture,” said Omar Figueroa, a local civil rights attorney representing Tanner in her criminal case.

Tesconi confirmed that the planned content for the event had not changed prior to its cancellation — only how the flyer explained it.

Sonoma County Chief Deputy District Attorney Brian Staebell, who was scheduled to replace Rodriguez on the panel, said he does not take sides in participating in these Farm Bureau events, which he has presented at in the past.

“I’m not advocating for any particular group — that’s not my job and that’s not my intention. My job is to provide information to the community,” he said.

Despite the Farm Bureau workshop’s cancellation, Figueroa believes its underlying intent was still problematic.

“Why are our tax dollars paying for a public official to speak at a private event on issues of public importance?” Figueroa asked.

“Even if they change the verbiage of managing activists to something more digestible, it does not change the fact that peaceful animal rights activists are being prosecuted for felonies for trying to rescue animals,” he said.

You can reach Staff Writer Emily Wilder at 707-521-5337 or emily.wilder@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @vv1lder.

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